TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter November 2009

Return to Archive

Water Water Everywhere

House RainWater. Essential for our own good health... but also our homes' worst enemy. Water, in the wrong place, can be incredibly destructive. Therefore, your number one priority as a homeowner is to keep water where it belongs. I can speak from direct personal experience on this one. A number of years ago, while we were away for a week's vacation in Florida, a tiny drip... drip... drip... under an upstairs bathroom sink led to $10,000 worth of damage. During our week away, that tiny drip produced a hundred gallons of water – which picked up grime as it traveled through the ceiling and walls on its way to our main floor and basement – staining surfaces, warping doors, and saturating carpet. The ridiculous part? A 50-cent washer could have prevented all that misery.

Water damage is the most common major problem faced by homeowners – and one of the most expensive (in the U.S. alone, causing over five billion dollars in insurance claims last year). Only fires and lightning strikes cause more costly damage. The reason is simple. It's because we're constantly surrounded by water. Hundreds to thousands of gallons flow through our home's copper supply pipes, through plumbing fixtures and appliances, and then down through the drain pipes each day. In a rainstorm, hundreds of gallons per hour hit the roof, flowing through our gutters and downspouts. The challenge then is to keep water in its place – inside the pipes or outside the house.

Let's start with the roof. A good roof is easy to take for granted. Most of us spend zero time thinking about our home's primary defense against the elements – until things go wrong. Unfortunately, roof leaks can be very tough to find and fix. Water can travel horizontally for a great distance before it's visible inside. Even a tiny roof leak can cause extensive damage. That's why you should call in a pro roofer to do a thorough inspection every two years or so; more frequently if your roof is nearing the end of its natural life. You could do this inspection yourself, but I don't recommend it. A roof is a dangerous place to be. Climbing and descending ladders can also be hazardous to your health. Some things you're better off paying someone else to do. However, if you insist on doing it yourself, here's what to look for. Leaks commonly occur around roof penetrations: chimney, plumbing stacks, exhaust vents, skylights, etc.

Get your mind out of the gutter... Clogged or bent gutters can also cause leaks inside your walls, particularly if your fascia boards (the vertical boards gutters are mounted upon) or soffits (the horizontal boards under your eaves) are damaged or rotten. Gutter problems are also a common cause of damp basements. A properly designed and maintained gutter/leader system will carry water far away from your foundation. If your once dry basement becomes wet, suspect gutter problems first. Again, I highly recommend hiring a laborer to clean your gutters for you. You don't belong up on a ladder. This is dirty, dangerous work best left to others... who are happy to do it for a nominal fee. Just make sure they have their own insurance coverage (and are licensed if your town/village/county requires contractor licensing). Depending on the number and kind of trees nearby, you may need to clean gutters more than once a year. By the way, if your gutters need replacing, I recommend installing 6" commercial gutters and downspouts. From the street, they look the same as 5" standard gutters, but that extra inch makes a huge difference. It almost doubles capacity and makes the gutters much less likely to clog. The cost difference is negligible but few gutter contractors have the equipment to "manufacture" seamless (the kind you want) 6 inch gutters onsite. You'll have to call around.

Verticals. Once your roof and gutter situation is under control, turn your attention to the vertical surfaces of your home: exterior walls, windows, door frames, and other penetrations (air conditioners, exhaust vents, conduits, etc.). Wind-driven rain will find its way into your home through small cracks and gaps. Caulking will usually fix the problem, but doing a correct, clean job is harder than it looks. A quality painting contractor will take care of caulking, and make sure your home's "skin" is in good shape too. Exterior paint protects as well as beautifies. A pro paint job isn't cheap, but it's still cheaper than replacing rotten wood and plaster. Your neighbors will smile at you a bit more too.

Plumbing Leaks. Yes, I know this is "common sense," but if you've got leaking faucets, showers, spigots, and the like, stop the drip! This is pretty easy do-it-yourself stuff. Shut off the water line, unscrew the offending parts, and bring them to your local plumbing supply or hardware store. Get a replacement and the fix is easy. Even if you have to call in a plumber, you'll save money in the long run. A little drip can waste thousands of gallons of water a year, and little drips eventually become big ones. A much worse kind of plumbing leak is one that occurs at a failed pipe joint inside the wall. If it's a slow leak, the damage may build over weeks or months before you even notice something's wrong. For example, it can run down into the basement bypassing an upstairs room and all you'll detect is increased humidity until the upstairs drywall becomes saturated. Then you've got big problems. As bad as this can be, it's nothing compared to a full break or separation, which will cause instantaneous, catastrophic damage. Again, I can speak from personal experience. We had a freeze-up at our vacation home during a particularly cold and windy Nor easter in the winter of 2000. A copper pipe located in a north-facing exterior wall burst. Water ran all though the house, into the garage, and then down the driveway. The leak continued for several days, freezing in layers along the driveway until it reached the road. Then a kindly year-round neighbor called me and said, "Victor, I don't know how to tell you this, but a *glacier* is advancing down your driveway!" It was a disaster to be sure. Our insurance claim was $35,000 and it took months to repair the damage. Still, others in the area fared worse. Another home had a similar upstairs leak, but it collected in the ceiling and the entire first floor ceiling came down, pancaked on the floor. Yet another home had wood floors throughout that buckled and had to be ripped out.

Hopefully you'll benefit from our misery. Just because a pipe has never frozen before, doesn't mean you're entirely safe. We were OK for a dozen years. A particularly severe cold snap can cause one of your pipes to freeze. If it's bitter cold and you hear the wind howling outside, and no water's coming out of the tap, that's what's happened. You have to take quick action before the pipe bursts or a joint fails. If you can get a plumber over right away, do that. Be aware you may have to rip open a wall to access the frozen pipe. Nonetheless, if you decide to make this a do-it-yourself project, please be know there's a right way and a wrong way to thaw a frozen pipe. Some well-meaning (but stupid) people get out a propane "Bernzomatic" torch and run the flame along the pipe. This is a great way to (a) burst the pipe, and/or (b) set your house on fire. Here's the right way to do it. First, open the faucet to vent the line. Next wrap the exposed pipe with towels or rags. Then pour hot/boiling water on the towels/rags. If water doesn't begin to flow out the faucet within a half-hour or so, it's time to call in a pro. Alternately, you can use a hair blow-drier on the pipe, starting nearest the faucet and working back. Unfortunately, both these methods fail more often than they work.

Appliances. Another cause of water-related catastrophes is appliance failure. The big offenders are clothes washing machines, dishwashers, ice makers, and hot water heaters. At a minimum, you should replace the rubber clothes washer supply hoses with braided stainless steel sheathed ones. Once available only in specialty catalogs, you can now find them at Home Depot and Loews. Since these hoses are usually under constant pressure, a failure will be particularly dramatic. While the braided lines are *much* less likely to burst than rubber ones, it's a good idea to have a plumber install an "instant" shut off valve in the laundry room. A single quick-action lever will turn the water on or off. Getting into the habit of turning it on when putting clothes in the washer and off when loading the dryer can save you much grief, especially if your laundry room is on an upper floor. Fortunately, dishwashers and ice makers are less likely to suffer a catastrophic water-related failure because they're (usually) hard-plumbed rather than hose connected. If you want to be really safe, check out my Cool Thing of the Month. i just installed one of these in our house and it provides great peace of mind. As an aside, I'm dealing with an over productive ice maker at my home as this is being written. It won't stop making cubes, even when the bin is full. Unless I empty the bin each day, cubes start overflowing into the freezer. In a worst-case scenario, if I was away on a trip, it would fill the entire freezer within a week, and start pushing the door open! Not good. Still... it's my commitment to you, dear reader, to finish this month's letter before I get out my toolbox.


Return to Archive

(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
This article
may be reprinted with permission and attribution